by Billal Ahmed
Pre-med at UC Berkeley is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to be busy and over-worked, to be forced to sacrifice things. It is not easy to succeed academically for many reasons: class sizes for lower division courses are huge (O-Chem doesn’t even have discussion sections), averages are usually B- or B, and there are lots of structural limitations to getting tutoring services (temporal, affiliation with a certain organization, etc…). Beyond that, as a large public university, it is often difficult to find research positions with professors, internships, and other opportunities that help people see if medicine is right for them. And with the size comes the general growing pains of making friends and finding community. I know this is something I struggled with and to some extent still do.
Let me be clear: I love my life. Despite the ups and downs, trials and tribulations, successes and failures, I have enjoyed my time at Cal and don’t regret that much. One thing that does suck about this route is that I don’t really have “down time.” I have plenty of fun in that I hang out with friends a ton (my friends mean the world to me), but I don’t have time to just sit at home, watch Netflix, and chill on my bed. This may be function of my extroverted personality, but this lack of down time does burn me out and make it stressful to work so hard and utilize all of my energy without ample recharge time. Granted, this is also because I over involve myself in extracurricular activities, which suck up more time for me than it does for the typical student.
Now that I’ve given ya’ll a little background over my pre-med experience, I’ll go into narrative mode and talk about my path:
Coming into College I wanted to be an Anthro pre-med. I don’t quite remember why I wanted to Anthro, but I wanted to rebel against the stereotypical MCB pre-med archetype. Going into my first semester I was really worried I wouldn’t do well because people at my high school had fed me this cutthroat caricature of Cal, which has not turned out to be true in my experience, though I’ll admit I’m a very sincere person who takes people at face value, so perhaps there are “cutthroats” that I don’t recognize. My first semester I had taken General Chemistry with Lab (Chem 1A/L), Socio-cultural Anthro (Anthro 3AC), Japanese History (History 14), and a Native American Literature Class (Native American Studies R1B). I thoroughly enjoyed all of my classes, and I had gotten a 4.0 my first semester, which really made me confident in my ability to succeed as a pre-med at Cal! All of the rumors I heard basically meant nothing to me that winter break, and I was really happy and confident about my future prospects. I definitely made friends in my classes and tried to help them out when I can, planting the seeds for a lot of my future activities at Cal.
My 2nd semester turned out to be a lot rougher. During the Fall I had only been doing Archery, but this semester I joined a community service club (Cal Rotaract), a mental health awareness club (You Mean More), and started tutoring elementary school students through OASES, which took up a lot of my time. Academically I was taking Organic Chem I (Chem 3A/L), Biological Anthropology (Anthro 1), Calc I (Math 16A), a lower division genetics class (PMB 13), a Public Health Class (PH 116), and a De-Cal on student writing. My first round of midterms did not go very well, and because of other stuff going on in my personal life, the semester did not start off on a good note. However, I managed to trudge through and pull a 4.0 again. Being involved with Rotaract that semester instilled in me an everlasting drive for humanism, and its motto “service above self” resonates with me to this day. I was a little bummed going into the summer though because I had applied for research positions but didn’t get any. However, and I don’t say this often about my life, this was one of the few times where one door closing opened up so many other amazing doors.
That Summer I was set to take two classes: A Scandinavian Literature Class (Scandinavian R5B) during the first session, and General Biology (Bio 1B) during the 3rd session, with a two week overlap between the two. I forget how I learned about it, but I started working for the Cal Calling Center that summer as well. In addition to that I ended up working for Cal Dining as a Food Service Worker at GBC. My friend Prerak and I, who were both taking Bio 1B together, wanted to “do something cool” that summer so we met up on July 2nd at FSM to talk about our cool plans. It was this meeting that gave birth to PEACE, a club that would define a lot of what my college experience has been about. On top of all of this, in late July I started training with the IRC at the Berkeley Free Clinic. As you can see my summer was extremely busy, but to be honest it was probably the best summer I’ve ever had, easily one of the best times of my life. As in previous semesters, I managed to pull a 4.0 this summer.
The following fall I took Organic Chemistry II (Chem 3B/L), Physics I (Physics 8A), Intro Psychology (Psych 1), and units for research! Given the extent of my obligations during the school year, I decided to drop working at the Cal Center but kept working at GBC. This semester was pretty busy, but in hindsight, I felt like it was very chill compared to my current workload. My research lab experience wasn’t terribly fun because the post-doc I worked with didn’t give me very much autonomy, and all I did was extract DNA, set up PCR’s, run a whopping total of one agarose gel, plant plants, and use ImageJ to measure pollen tube lengths. Actually now that I think about it, it wasn’t THAT bad, but my current lab I love a lot more. This semester I didn’t quite pull a 4.0 but I still did very well!
Now the Spring is where things got interesting. I decided to be crazy and take 4 technicals: General Bio (Bio 1A/L), Human Physiology (IB 132), Calc II (Math 16B), and Physics II (Physics 8B). This semester was my roughest semester academically, and after the first round of midterms, I finally hit the un-avoidable “should I give up pre-med” question. This was the first semester where I felt my workload pile to an unhealthy level and felt constantly burnt out. To be fair, my work ethic wasn’t quite up to par yet, as I remember playing Settlers of Catan staying up until 1 AM talking about life several nights. I also stopped working for Cal Dining and started tutoring as an Anthropology Study Group Leader with the SLC this semester, and my group that semester didn’t have very high attendance because it was a Friday afternoon, which hurt my faith in myself a lot. On an “objective” sense I didn’t do terrible this semester, I definitely dropped from my former quality of work. This semester had two redeeming qualities: first, PEACE had became an official organization through the University and got funding, and I was excited to start at a new research lab in the summer!
That Summer I had two main things on my plate: Research and MCAT Studying, with some BFC volunteering and PEACE tutoring on the side. Research was initially very frustrating because there was so much to learn, and the grad student I work with expected a lot from me in terms of autonomy and my knowledge of the science. I was doing molecular cloning, and in terms of actual results for the project the summer was fruitless because I was using the wrong template for my PCR’s the whole time. However, I learned the skills to be a beast cloner and I learned about the frustrations and rewards of wet lab research. Before this experience I would never have considered doing wet lab research as a career, but after working in the lab I definitely want to be involved with some sort of medical research in my career. Studying for the MCAT was ok, but if I could go back and do it again, I would focus less on content review for the Bio portion and spend time cranking through practice passages. Overall I wish I had put more time into both lab work and MCAT. The main thing holding me back was FOMO, the fear of missing out. To me the idea of studying on a Friday or Saturday night was ludicrous, that I had to spend these designated times “having fun” to fulfill some sort of weird Fordist dream.
This past Fall (Fall 2014) was a great semester! I took Biophysical Chemistry (MCB C100A), Biostatistics (PH 142), Pre-Modern Chinese Literature (Chinese 7A), and Human Anatomy (IB 131). It was a demanding courseload, but enriching and intellectually diverse. My extracurricular involvement this semester was definitely heavy, but it integrated will into my coursework. The previous year going to lab was annoying because it was all the way in Albany, and I could only go during business hours, but my current lab I could go in whenever I wanted. This made it really convenient to do cloning whenever I had the time to do so, so I planned It around my class schedule. I would set up a PCR, go to class, run a gel and cut out a slice, go to a club meeting, come back and purify it and digest. Next day after classes I would purify my digestion, go tutor for a few hours, and then come back to ligate and transform. Screening the various constructs I made was similarly flexible, and I really came to love doing lab work during the Fall. My involvement in You Mean More, the Mental Health Awareness Organization, and PEACE were similarly busy this semester and the next, as was my Anthropology Study Group with the SLC and my clinic work. Despite the heavy academic and extracurricular workload, I excelled in my classes and had a great semester without having to sacrifice my social life very much.
This semester (Spring 2015) has been pretty awesome as well, though not sure if it’s better than the Fall. I’m taking Human Reproduction (IB 140), Astronomy (Astro C10), Community Health (PH 150E), and an internship called FSI where I get to shadow a doctor for credit! This semester my lab work got more time intensive as I’ve transitioned from Vanilla Cloning into Overlap Extension Cloning and I’ve immersed myself into the woefully wonderful world of western blots. Word of warning: Western Blots are really hard to balance with a student schedule. It takes me about 8 hours to collect cell lysate, extract and quantify protein, run my gel, transfer to the membrane, then block. This is a fairly continuous 8 hours, with the gap times not usually enough to go to class or do a club meeting. Because I knew I would have to run blots, I intentionally designed my schedule to have lots of gaps in the mornings. This highlights another sacrifice as a pre-med, or at least a Billal sacrifice: I have to plan my class schedule around my extracurricular obligations. One of my biggest problems this semester has been balancing school with other aspects of my life. I remember not doing so well on a midterm because I didn’t study over spring break, and I didn’t study over spring break because I was in lab or clinic for most of spring break. However, one of the joys of this semester has been this “coffee date” initiative I copied from some random person on the internet, where I have an open invite to catch-up with anyone wants to hang out with me! It’s a been a really solid way to relax and bond with people. This summer, I’m going to be working in my lab again, volunteering at BFC, and tutoring through PEACE. I predict it’ll be busy but not as bad as Research+MCAT in the previous summer, especially since I’ve gotten over my FOMO.
I hope ya’ll found this as helpful as I did in reconstructing a loose narrative of my experience here at Cal. This is obviously just the surface, as I omitted a lot about my personal and emotional growth (not that those aren’t important, but because they’re not as directly relevant I feel). Perhaps I’ll write another post focusing on those aspects in particular?
Have a good one! Stay based!